On April 26, 2020, the nation was shocked by the suicide of Dr. Lorna Breen, a New York City emergency physician who was recovering from COVID-19 in Virginia. Dr. Breen is one of an unknown number of health care professionals who have experienced mental illness or taken their lives over the past year. Although this issue is longstanding, Dr. Lorna Breen’s tragic death has galvanized many in the health care community. Spearheaded by the, which has led the charge in combatting the epidemics of burnout, suicide, and mental illness in our health care professional community, we have organized around this cause with renewed rigor. That is why the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) is partnering with the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation to advocate for increased mental health access for health care professionals and trainees.
Mental health has become increasingly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as health care providers are stretched to their limits as they are asked to perform above and beyond their credentials. Even before the pandemic, it had been shown that – about twice the prevalence of the general working population in the U.S. – and about 10 percent experience suicidal ideation. There are many hypothesized causes of these high rates, including a loss of autonomy and feelings of powerlessness. No matter the source, it is paramount that we address this crisis head-on to protect our workforce for the future. And it isn’t just health care providers that face the fallout – it has been shown that burnout and mental illness in health care results in lower quality of care, lower patient satisfaction, higher medical errors, and higher staff turnover.
The process of fighting for mental health access for current and future health care professionals must be multifaceted, involving health care institutions, training programs, lawmakers, trainees, students, professionals, and larger society. Training programs and health care institutions must engage in education, programming, and policy development that centers well-being and mental health support for all providers, since we are also losing future health care workers to suicide as students. Lawmakers and elected officials can support these efforts by providing resources and funding for programs that center mental health treatment and wellness initiatives. This is exactly what the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act will do.
Wonderfully, the 2021 American Rescue Plan that passed has provisions modeled after the Lorna Breen Act:
- $80 million to train health care professionals and public safety officers in strategies to reduce and address suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions
- $20 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to carry out an education and awareness campaign to encourage health care professionals and first responders to seek support and treatment for their own behavioral health concerns, identify and respond to risk factors in themselves and others, and address stigma
- $40 million in grants for health care providers to establish or expand programs to promote mental and behavioral health among their health professional workforce
However, there are provisions of the Lorna Breen Act which are not included in the COVID-19 package that still must be passed, including a federal study into the mental health and burnout of health care workers. Further, the Lorna Breen Act will serve as a roadmap for the $140 million appropriated in the American Rescue Plan. The Lorna Breen Act will also provide for ongoing funding of the programs since the COVID-19 package is a one-time allocation. AMSA strongly supports the Lorna Breen Act – in fact, this piece of legislation was one of the main policies we advocated for in a recent Advocacy Day, organized for almost 100 future physicians who visited 25 legislative offices on March 8, 2021. As future health care workers, it is important to shape our future profession, so our colleagues are not burning out.
We have a chance to take a meaningful step in fighting burnout and mental health issues in the health care profession. We have lost too many valued and vibrant health care professionals due to an illness that is treatable but stigmatized – including the devastating loss of Dr. Lorna Breen. The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act will leave a lasting legacy for bettering our health care community, taking the first step in addressing this horrible crisis. Endorsement of the Lorna Breen Act is not limited to medical students, other health care workers, students, and hospitals have a stake. We ask that you do your part by contacting your elected officials in support of this legislation today.
Iowa medical students advocating for the Lorna Breen Bill to U.S Senator Chuck Grassley’s legislative staff (AMSA Advocacy day on March 8, 2021).
Image credit: Mattie Renn, Thomas Pak, and Corey Feist